Islamic Feminism is a Myth

The ousting of Moroccan scholar Asma Lamrabet lays bare the falsity of claims by mostly Western conservative Muslims that Islam is the most feminist religion once again.

Ms Lamrabet, chief of the Center of Women Studies in Islam at the Mohammaden League, who argues for gender equality in religious interpretation, was asked to resign over her vocal support for equal inheritance for women. The Mohammaden League is an Islamic institute which serves as a guardian of Islamic tradition and interpreter of Islamic jurisprudence. Although it was during Lamrabet’s time that ML began to appoint women to become Adouls (traditional notaries at the Mohammedan league), allowing women’s participation in witnessing acts of marriage, divorce and inheritance, it seems its steps towards gender equality for women are still baby ones.

The incident is exemplary of the rapid social changes in the Islamic world where emotions are running high between conservative Islamist interpreters and those who believe in defining their religion in light of modern social developments. It makes clear the disparity between modern definition of equality and what is allowable under Islam. The beliefs of orthodox Muslims and the notion of human equality irrespective of caste, color or creed still remain at odds.

Despite this, we frequently see Muslim women in the West insisting that Islam is “the most feminist religion” or arguing that Islam and feminism go hand in hand despite layers and layers of contradictions when we try to compare both sets of values without even going into the ethical debate. The term “Islamic feminism” indicates an engagement with feminist discourse which draws on Islamic theology. It takes the Quranic concept of all humans being equals in the eye of God but by upholding theological explanations for societal roles assigned to men and women, it perpetuates a structure which sees women living with far fewer powers than men.

The Cairo Declaration (1990) is considered the parallel charter of human rights in the Islamic world but it still doesn’t treat women and members of other religions as equal to Muslim men. Instead it assumes that women’s rights should be directly derived from the religious texts. This makes it much harder for woman to claim their place in society since interpretations, while differing in many ways, have long been dominated by conservative views on how women should conduct themselves socially.

This is in stark contrast to feminism which is rooted in the belief that women should be treated equally in legal, economic and social institutions regardless of religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and nationality which is far more inclusive than any religious definition of a free woman. One wonders why Islamic feminists feel the need for a separate, religious qualifier when Muslim women have, for decades, been striving for equality as part of a global movement for human rights, with conservative patriarchal religions forming the main sources of resistance.

The concept of Islamic feminism is strongly criticized by secular feminists who are Muslim and believe that the idea of a specifically Islamic feminism is intrinsically flawed and self-contradictory. Mahnaz Afkhami is a Iranian Muslim and liberal feminist who describes this contradiction between Feminism and Islam eloquently. She says,

“Our difference with Islamic feminists is that we don’t try to fit feminism in the Qur’an. We say that women have certain inalienable rights. The epistemology of Islam is contrary to women’s right…I call myself a Muslim and a feminist. I am not an Islamic feminist – that’s a contradiction in terms.”

On the most recent Women’s Day, women living in Muslim majority countries including Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey took to the streets shouting out loud their need for fundamental rights which are infringed by religious hardliner states. Turkish women walking down the streets of Ankara calling out the sharia-compliant state’s indifference towards women were met with tear gas and arrests. A day before International women’s day, an Iranian woman who later became the symbol of resistance against the theocratic regime, was jailed for two years because she dared to challenge the misogynistic mandatory religious dress code by hoisting her hijab on a stick.

These women are fighting the customs and regulations which oppress them in the name of divine laws. The bitter reality of living in a highly orthodox religious society is quite opposite to the values that “Islamic feminism” supposedly represents. Such societies are built on inflexible religious ideas that define “respect” for women exclusively in religious terms, and therefore regard any demand for genuine equal rights as a rebellion against the state.

The Western world, while not perfect, has adopted the secular values that provide equal standing for all members of society, both religious and non-religious, after centuries of persecution. Nevertheless, Muslim women privileged enough to be born and raised in Western democratic societies behave as though they are obliged in one way or another to give all credit for their rights to religion. Meanwhile, globally, the majority of Muslim women routinely have their human rights snuffed out by cultural and religious manifestations sprouting from theological discourse.

Furthermore, under the pretext of wishing to avoid hurting the feelings of a religious minority, Western liberals and the mainstream media routinely brush all discussion of religiously motivated abuses under the rug. While they are busy protecting the feelings of religious hardliners, they neglect the safety and human rights of many other Muslims. For many progressive Muslims and ex-Muslims, it is heart-breaking when Westerners act as apologists, supporting the demands for Sharia-compliant “rights” made by Islamist women in the West. We seldom hear these human rights activists talking about the oppression of women in theocratic states, especially in the Muslim majority world.

The callous indifference churned out by some modern media outlets and filmmakers who shamelessly boast about the “rights” religion(s) gave to women, especially in Middle Eastern culture, deliberately ignore the hell that so many women actually go through there.

A recent documentary produced by the BBC presented several western Muslim women who waxed proud about being “empowered” by the religion but seemed oblivious to the real-life issues imperiling Muslim women and minors. It was appalling to see both the host and the Muslim women guests brag about being virgins, when this status does nothing to elevate women’s autonomy but limits their social status relative to their desirability to men for the prospect of “marriage.” This defines female power entirely in relation to men and marriage — the polar opposite of feminism.

One woman claimed Islam to be “the most feminist religion” and described herself as “as randy as the next one” before asserting that she is “still holding on to the no sex before marriage thing.” She forgets to mention that she was able to say this because she was in a Western country, which protected her freedom of such expression whereas she might have been incarcerated for publicly uttering such desires in a Sharia state, despite being a Muslim hijabi.

A peek into the Muslim world today explodes the myth of “Islamic feminism.” Saudi women are fighting against an infantilizing guardian system that treats them as second-class citizens or children. Irani women are calling out the brutal facets of the oppressive regime. They are imprisoned and tortured by the Iranian authorities for showing the slightest glimpse of their head or other forbidden body parts in public. Even in Western countries Muslim women have to go through similar situations on top of unfathomable abuses like female genital mutilation, honor killing and halala practices, which mock all of the progress and sexual equality that characterize modern civilization.

This is a betrayal on the part of non-Muslim liberals and a deception on the part of radicalized Muslim women who come forward to pretend that women are revered in Muslim world. They frequently claim they are duty-bound to import the same marvelous practices to the modern world in order to give a glimpse of “heaven-sent lifestyle” to Western women too. Attaching the word “Islamic” to the activities of conservative Muslim women in the developed world hints at Islamist motives in making these values acceptable in the West.

Many of these Islamic “feminists,” despite knowing the above-mentioned facts, try to reconcile religious sources with a feminist viewpoint inspired by Western feminism. Yet they fail to acknowledge and account for the abysmal gap between the lifestyle of modern women and their counterparts living in religious authoritarian societies. Taking this stance shuts down discussion and limits awareness of Muslim women’s plight and exacerbates their miseries. Only secular laws can help women achieve their rightful place in the society. Finding refuge for women’s rights under organized religion remains a myth no matter how hard one shouts that theirs is a “feminist” religion.

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  1. Khadija Khan’s article is a candle in the wind in the very regions which restrict a woman’s autonomy. Her article helps inform in a way which affects all women throughout the world who are subjected to religion’s lack of balance and inclusiveness based from doctrines written by people—all men—of limited knowledge who passionately desired to prove a male god exists who ruled the flat earth which they also fervently believed the sun rotated.

    Here in the Western world in which I live there are pockets of towns and small cities where most people look alike and share the same Christian beliefs. Then, there are cosmopolitan cities of vast diverse populations sharing their belief systems, marrying outside their culture, mostly celebrating the different even though ignorant bias toward the different still occurs.

    Even though I live in a country where historically mainly men have fought in wars, given their lives for others to live in freedom somehow throughout the years it seems there’s no longer a separation between Church and State. Christian fundamentalism is pervading a government which people died to preserve as by the people, for the people—not by the Christians for the Christians.

    It’s not just a closed religious society’s “holy-men-in-hats” dictatators which restricts freedom. Like all children, I was brought up in a family with a particular belief system. However, unlike many children’s parents, I was allowed to question, study and attend other belief systems’ buildings of worshipping practices and its interesting people. Some religious “homes” were more comfortable than others but people were no different than other people nor was the dogma taught which encompasses all religions: God is a man, therefore this belief allows men to rule. Religion’s ideal slot for women: we care for others before our needs; we defer to a husband, take on most of the onus of raising children; we clean and cook.

    We were never given a female god because we were and still are busy deferring to a husband, raising children, cooking, cleaning and now, in so-called modern times, holding a job. Another reason we don’t have a female god is because it’s rather difficult—downright impossible—to remain the highly elevated virgin of a religious mans ideals while living in the real world as a wife, mother, caregiver to all the world of mankind.

    It took years, despite a wider freedom than most, to discover the silliness of man-made myths. It’s refreshing and very freeing to admit not knowing the answers. It’s not necessarily an atheistic stance because this reality, this life is so mind boggling it feels like “something is going on we have yet to fully understand”.

    Whatever that something is, it is not what religions or spiritualists have used in their fanatical power of oppression or snake oil salesmanship to have us believe. Whatever the mystery of this life, it’s inclusive, doesn’t discriminate, and appears indifferent to what any of us believe.

  2. She means that feminism can’t come from Islam. But I’f you’re a liberal Muslim, then you can also be a feminist, because liberal Islamic interpretations don’t contradict feminism.

  3. Sorry to criticise, but the quote from Mahnaz Afkhami does seem to be anything but eloquent:

    “Our difference with Islamic feminists is that we don’t try to fit feminism in the Qur’an. We say that women have certain inalienable rights. The epistemology of Islam is contrary to women’s right…I call myself a Muslim and a feminist. I am not an Islamic feminist – that’s a contradiction in terms.”

    She appears to be saying that A and B contradict each other, and that she is both!

    Or is it that “Muslim” doesn’t mean “adherent to Islam”?


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